Jean Chatzky explores three smart ways to find success in a new field
My friend Diane has gone back to school. Her goal? To get a degree in nutrition – just one step, for this former sales and marketing exec, as she plans her second act.
My cousin Ilene, over dinner, unveiled her idea of a fab business to take her through the next stage of her life: Open a restaurant that would be open only weekdays and only for breakfast and lunch. (She noted she had yet to figure out if such a restaurant could be profitable, but it sure would be nice to have free nights and weekends!)
I have often spoken about the fact that if I weren’t writing about money, I’d like to open a bakery. More recently, though, I’ve been thinking that I’d enjoy a second career in the classroom, teaching high school or college.
For all the time we spend envisioning the next phase, reinvention, second act – whatever you want to call it – it’s good to know that 8.4 million Americans have actually taken the leap. Journalist Kerry Hannon spent three years traveling the country to profile these people for U.S. News. Now she’s put the best of those stories – along with some valuable how-to advice – into a smart book called What’s Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job.
Particularly now, with unemployment at almost nine percent, the idea of leaving even a job you hate to try something new can be downright frightening, a fact Hannon acknowledges. “When I started the column, I was looking at boomers who had done something for 20 years, spurred by a crisis – in many cases 9/11 – to find more meaning. As I moved forward, the economy made it a whole other situation. Often people needed to make a change, because they lost their jobs or were asked to take early retirement.” Whether you’re transitioning by choice or because you have to, I spoke with Hannon last week about what you need to know to transition successfully.
Practice impulse control. “The people I profile in the book are winners, in part because they didn’t try to do anything impulsively,” says Hannon. “They took the time to plan so that nothing was rash.” Taking the time, she notes, doesn’t just mean thinking about it. It means doing research into the skills or certifications required for your new career. It may also mean apprenticing, like the former Merrill Lynch banker who dreamed of opening an Italian restaurant. He didn’t just raid his 401(k) and do it. He apprenticed at another red-sauce joint where he did everything from waiting tables to learning to sauté – in part just to see if he liked it as much as he thought he would.
Find a mentor. Any time you’re shifting gears to a completely new field, you’ll need contacts in that new area to help you along. A key ingredient is reaching out, networking, finding a mentor or two working in that field. And yes, that means meeting people – not just talking to them on Facebook or Linked In – and then asking them for advice rather than help. It’s preferable for two reasons. First, asking someone for advice is flattering because you show them you value their knowledge. Tell them you see they’ve had this incredible career or success and you’d like to know more about it. Second, advice doesn’t require the person you’re connecting with to ask anything of someone else. It’s easier to offer and doesn’t require the expenditure of any of that person’s social capital. That means, particularly if you’re a new acquaintance, it’s lower risk, and for that reason alone you’re more likely to get what you’re asking for. Don’t be surprised if, in the course of that conversation, the person offers help as well. And if they do, follow the breadcrumbs to take them up on it rather than dropping the ball.
Say a new connection offers to introduce you to Fred, his next-door neighbor, who just happens to hire people with your skills. The fact that they made the offer does not mean that they’re going to chase you down and schedule that meeting. The very next day, place a call or send an e-mail expressing your gratitude and asking for the phone number so you can follow up yourself. That will insure that your new connection does as promised and, again, by rounding back so quickly, you’re signaling how much you value his or her advice.
Get your finances in order. Making a job or career change, in many cases, involves starting on a lower salary, notes Hannon, so give yourself a chance to succeed by downsizing in advance. Hannon profiled a former (unhappy) mortgage banker who is now a (happy) high school social studies teacher. Before making the switch, this educator ditched the big house for a condo, traded two cars for one and made an effort to bank some cash.
Finally, understand that this period of transition you’re about to enter into will likely be unsettling until you get, well, settled. It’s tough to cope with being a beginner again, with losing your base of support. Some people grow wistful for their own careers and many people end up going back. And sometimes you need a career counselor or other helping hand to get you on the right path, says Hannon, who says she emerged from the writing with an admiration for her subjects and their spirit. And what would she do with a next act of her own? “I could be a chocolatier, I suppose,” she laughs. “I left every interview going, ‘I wish I could do that.’”